"Why isn't this guy a big star," was the big question in common among the 2700 people attending the Elvis Costello concert last Thursday night at the O'Connell Center. Costello, extremely popular to a certain element of pop fans, gave more than everything to the tiny crowd, and was received ecstatically by all. Still, the man's been making great records for five years, and many of the concert's attendees were getting a taste of his talents for the very first time.
Elvis Costello has one of the most expressive, dynamic vocal ranges in pop. He and his band, the Attractions, performed more than thirty songs in a two-and-one-half hour show, and his voice was strong throughout. From the barroom punk of "You Belong to Me" and "Mystery Dance" to the touchy vocalisms on ballads like "Almost Blue" and Jim Reeves' "He'll Have to Go," Costello displayed versatility seldom heard at a rock concert. He hit the high notes in "New Lace Sleeves," the vibrato in "Clubland," the emotional nerve in "Kid About It," with astounding control. On his records, Costello sings beautifully. In concert, he makes it look easy.
At stagefront, several hundred eager fans pressed together to dance to the faster tunes. Although Costello is duly famous for his lyrical wit, he has often said that he most enjoys playing to a crowd of gyrating bodies. People pushed, bounced and hopped, but didn't seem to shove, to the sounds of Elvis' big-bop songs "Red Shoes," "Temptation," "Accidents Will Happen," and "Watching the Detectives." This is one of the more ironic factors in the Costello (non) success story — "Detectives" is a sordid song, loaded with nasty metaphors about murder, and yet it's one of his most popular numbers, a real danceable tune, if you will. Likewise "King Horse," a seedy portrayal of male barflies, provided a backbeat for frenzied dancing. Apparently no one listens to the lyrics anyway, because, if they who associate Costello with out-and-out dance music, or mindless "new wave" actually knew what "Green Shirt" is saying, they probably wouldn't approach it with such abandon.
Perhaps the biggest thrill visually came with Costello's facial expressions. He seemed to enunciate lines he particularly wanted understood, and his grimaces, shrugs, and hand gestures occasionally recalled Frank Sinatra and Jerry Vale. During "Imperial Bedroom," a song not yet available here on record, Costello let the lyrics, which seethe with slummy references to promiscuity, roll out of his mouth and down his sleeve, where he chucked them off his fingers with obvious disdain. When Costello sang "Shipbuilders," another new song, the emotion was drawn on his face.
Conversely, he seemed to rush through his older material — "Radio, Radio," "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding" and "Alison" were played faster than usual. Concentrating instead on songs from his latest album, Elvis put most of his energy into "Shabby Doll," "Pidgin English," "Beyond Belief," and "The Long Honeymoon." His guitar playing was substantial but not overbearing, but that band...
The Attractions are a three-piece unit that would do any rock 'n' roller proud. Bruce Thomas is a terrific bass player with a touch for Elvis' material. He and Pete Thomas, on drums, are a solid rhythm section. Steve Nieve, Elvis' longtime keyboard player, is simply a wonder. He switched from Farfisa organ, to harpsichord, to acoustic piano with uncanny ease. His synthesizer work, particularly on "New Lace Sleeves" and "And in Every Home" was impressive. Nieve lives in St. Petersburg with his wife and young daughter, but his keyboard wizardry and arranging talent are known and respected throughout the pop world.
Beginning their first encore with "Man Out of Time" after ninety minutes, Elvis and the Attractions played what amounted to another entire concert. Playing his own favorites and little-known songs, they did "Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down" and "Why Don't You Love Me" by Merle Haggard and Hank Williams, respectively. While the upfront dancers grew impatient during the ballads "Almost Blue" and "I Can't Stand Up for Falling Down" (slowed down like the Sam & Dave original), they were up and bopping when "Big Sister's Clothes" and "Pump It Up" were delivered.
Costello himself enjoyed the Gainesville show — he spent the evening drinking in the Clique Lounge on 13th Street — and indeed, the following night's concert, in Orlando, was considerably less electric. If, as Costello says, they'll be coming back to America every year, people ought to start buying his records.
Why isn't he immensely popular? As he sings:
"I've got a feeling / I'm gonna get a lot of grief /
Once this seemed so appealing / Now I am beyond belief."